Establishing Kingdom: Peering Behind The Curtain of AUC Pageantry

Photos from MSAB Instagram Page.
Photos from MSAB Instagram Page.

“A pageant is an avenue to show talent, express views, and show how to think, have a voice, and an opinion.”  Sharmell Sullivan (First Attendant to Miss Maroon and White ‘91)

Courtesy of The Spelman Archives

At the heart of Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) lies a culture of pageantry. Commonly associated with an image of sashes, gag-worthy speeches, and crowns, pageant culture has come to signify a long-awaited and anticipated event for many. For the AUC, pageantry isn’t just an event people attend; it’s a lifestyle. With decorated posts of your friends’ pageant numbers plastered on your Instagram story the day before they’re revealed, to you yelling, recording, and dancing along with them when they’re finally displayed to the public, for the AUC, pageantry is a serious ordeal.

Within the pageantry sector, AUC students have many options: Residential Hall Association (RHA), Greek organizations, Class Council, Miss Maroon and White, and Miss Spelman College. Spelman and Morehouse College’s respective pageants have significantly shaped their legacy, opening the discourse for pageantry to mean more than glitz and glamor but rather an avenue for positive change with the AUC. It is a chance for individuals within both institutions to showcase their talents, intellect, and charisma. Nevertheless, pageantry possesses its fair share of trials and tribulations under the same scope, from stereotypes to social expectations.

Take a seat as we delve into the behind-the-scenes process, stigmas, and experiences of current pageant title holders: Ms. 1906, Talia Textus, Second Attendant to Miss Spelman, Nadia Scott, Mr. Junior, Kahlil Shafer Jr, Pageant Director Jaci Casby, Mr. Eta Kappa, Khalil Aevon and the 40th Miss Spelman College, Indi Clayton.

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RHA Pageantry and the Freshman Experience

Before coming to the AUC, I had never given much thought to pageant life. It was a concept I’d only ever seen through films like “Miss Congeniality” and “Dumplin’,” where white people were the token demographic enabled to be adorned in expensive jewels and walk along a stage with a sash and glistening crown. Coming to Spelman, I faced a culture shock as the pageant queens I’d only seen through film suddenly came to life. From Miss Spelman, being a known figure on campus, to girls in my dorm screaming with glee at the opportunity to run for freshman pageants like Ms. RHA or Ms. HPSA, I was moved to see Blackness in “regal” spaces.

Being a first-year, one of the first pageants introduced to me was the RHA (Resident Hall Association) pageant. The RHA pageant is an opportunity for first-year students to step into pageant life within the AUC and determine if they want to continue pursuing it throughout their college matriculation. For former Mr. RHA 2021-22, Kahlil Shafer Jr, the RHA pageant experience and holding the title of Mr. RHA has meant the most to him throughout his pageant journey, “It was a moment in time for people to see me for me without even knowing who I was,” he stated.

Class Pageants

Beyond RHA pageants, class council pageants are also an opportunity for students to engage with the student body. Being crowned Second Attendant to the 2022-23 Mr. Sophomore Kahlil Shafer Jr remarks how he had to establish his purpose in shifting from Mr. RHA to class council pageantry.

Why was he continuing his journey with pageantry? What did pageantry mean to him?

In constructing his “why,” Shafer Jr made pageantry personal, thus curating an intimate connection with pageantry when he channeled whatever feeling or experience he was going through and emoted that on stage for his audience to resonate with. Being a Black man in pageantry, Shafer Jr found his vulnerability to be an important component of his journey and process, as typically, people who look like him aren’t given the space to show themselves in the pageant space. Considering pageantry is often a female-dominated area, and men are judged for participating due to societal expectations of Black manhood, he found it necessary for people to see his story. “It’s okay to cry, feel, be down, have depression anxiety and all of these different things that aren’t always a topic of conversation or even brought to the mainstream conversation when it comes to Black men and mental health,” he states.

Nowadays, he remarks how, in pageantry, he doesn’t see the genuine nature he strives to exude through his performances. “I feel like people do it only because it makes them look good or it’s a

strategic or calculated decision to get to where they want to go later in life or the AUC,” comments Shafer Jr. For him, pageantry means “service, leadership, vulnerability, and a willingness to show a different level of excellence that isn’t always the lens you see here in the AUC.”

Greek Pageants

During their Sophomore or Junior year, many students embark on Greek pageantry. It requires more preparation, research, and an innate understanding of the organization you want to represent. For Khalil Aevon, Mr. Eta Kappa (2023-24), even before the Mr. Crimson and Cream pageant hosted by the Eta Kappa Chapter of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority Incorporated, he did preliminary research to ensure that he understood the organization’s values and principles and that they aligned with him.

Aevon felt the ladies of the Eta Kappa illustrated the essence of sisterhood and what dedication and hard work genuinely mean through their 5-point programmatic thrust.“They are actively addressing a wide range of pressing societal concerns,” Aevon remarked.

Talia Textus, Ms. 1906 (2023-24), shared that her purpose in competing in Ms. Black and Gold pageant was due to the impact she saw from the Alpha Rho Chapter of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity Incorporated, inspiring her to want to experience that first-hand by being their queen. A common misconception that many people believe is that pageants are easy. Textus initially felt deterred from competing due to her only pageant experience being Ms. RHA and having no affiliation with Greek life. Nevertheless, such apprehensions morphed into her ‘why’ for running. “I wanted to show girls like me that it doesn’t matter who you are or the networking you have…you can still be somebody,” she states.

Internal challenges are common during the pageant process. From contestant’s intros, perfecting the dances, crafting talents, and purchasing outfits, contestants must balance many moving parts. Textus adds, “Juggling academic, social, and personal life is no small feat. There’ll be days when you catch yourself crying and where you feel you can’t do this anymore.”

Kahlil Shafer Jr. reflects on his experience of competing in two pageants in the same semester: the (2023-24) Mr. Junior pageant and the (2023-24) Mr. Crimson and Cream pageant. He states, “I literally had no break mentally, I had no downtime, I was constantly practicing every day, still going to class, still showing up for myself, my family, my friends, being social, just all of that.” What grounded him was the confidence and self-esteem he developed throughout the process. “Even if there was not anyone, not a single person that saw Kahlil on that stage, (he) saw what (he) had to offer,” he adds.

Through Greek pageantry and pageantry as a whole, one learns the importance of leaning on oneself and others, as one is a pageant sibling before and after the process, despite the final outcome. “Discomfort is essential for personal growth,” shares Aevon, “(and) pageants allowed me to grow socially as well as make connections and friendships that I cherish that would not have been made if not for these experiences.”

Directing Pageants

The most unacknowledged people in pageantry are the individuals behind the scenes. From the pageant director to the choreographer, without them, the alluring nature surrounding pageantry wouldn’t exist. Having her foot in pageantry from the scope of a contestant, director, and choreographer, Jaci Casby sheds light on her experience within the pageant world.

Casby has directed and choreographed pageants like Mr. and Ms. HPSA, Ms. Phi Beta Sigma, Mr. Sophomore, and Mr. Junior. She feels she found her niche in the behind-the-scenes component of pageantry, “(I) love the control of deciding the creative aspect of a pageant,” Casby states. Though she misses the act of being a contestant, as a director and choreographer, she feels she offers something new and different to pageantry. “I’m very innovative, (and) I love things that are different. Being different is fun!”

Casby found that she is a figure of representation for others. “Being at Morehouse as a person like myself or people who are in my community, it’s just not easy,” she comments. Thus, in holding a position on Morehouse’s SGA, being a director and choreographer for pageants, and even having her own inclusive dance team called Thee Maroon Muses Dance Company, Jaci describes, “If you’re gonna work hard for it, and you have the resume, the merit, you deserve it, you deserve the platform.” Through Casby’s determination, it’s clear that pageantry is a process, commanding merit and hard work: aspects that Jaci hopes can proceed to be prioritized within the pageant world.

The Miss Spelman Pageant

Two of the most sought-after pageants are The Maroon and White pageant and The Miss Spelman pageant. The pageant is exclusively for Juniors so that they hold the title their Senior year; both pageants are highly anticipated events within the AUC and opportunities for contestants to represent not only themselves but their beloved institutions. For the current 40th Miss Spelman College and Her Court, all three queens were foreigners to the pageant world before competing. They took the phrase ‘go big or go home seriously!’

The second attendant to Miss Spelman, Nadia Scott, has been very involved on campus throughout her matriculation, from being a student ambassador, peer assistant leader, and general advocate for Spelman. When considering what pageant to run for as her last hurrah, Nadia’s friends heavily endorsed her running for Miss Spelman. “It kind of fell in line with everything I

had already been doing,” mentions Scott, thus giving her an avenue to “serve Spelman and (her) siblings in a different way.”

For The 40th Miss Spelman College, Indi Clayton, coming to Spelman as an athlete from high school, pageantry wasn’t necessarily at the forefront of her mind. She didn’t feel she fit the mold of a queen; Indi reflected that witnessing three the reigns of former Miss. Spelman queens like Morgan Staten (37th Miss Spelman), Diop Russell (38th Miss Spelman), and Nia Curry (39th Miss Spelman), Clayton realized there was no “mold” to fit, as all of the queens she had seen throughout her enrollment were so different from each other.

“The crown is moldable,” a statement coined by Miss Spelman and Her Court advisor, Ms. Melanie Cason, is a sentiment permeating throughout the AUC’s pageant culture. Scott remarks, “We look nothing like the 39th court, the 39th court looks nothing like the 38th, and (the) 41st court is going to look nothing like us”. Specifically for the 40th Miss Spelman and Her Court, their mold for their reign was based on the fact that they are “just regular girls,” comments Scott.

The Miss Spelman pageant aims to solidify a family dynamic amongst its contestants before they even touch the stage. “Yes, it’s a competition, but the six other girls that I competed with, we’re still friends to this day,” remarks Clayton. Clayton became a member of the Eta Kappa Chapter of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority Incorporated the week after she was crowned Miss. Spelman, her pageant sisters, came to her probate and, to this day, they kiki in their group chat because they built a genuine friendship.

For the 40th Miss Spelman and Her Court, their close relationship has formed through leaning on each other. Clayton comments, “They fill in for me when I can’t attend events, but they also help with things even down to, like, if I’m having a bad day on a weekend or at 12 o’clock in the morning, that’s who I’m calling because they get it,” she adds.

Clayton’s platform, Sunny with a Chance 4 Her, stemmed from her non-profit, Chance4Her; she always wanted people to feel seen. Clayton lived to view herself as Miss. Spelman, even without the crown. She notes, “(the) title simply gave me the platform to share with this community who I was.” She hopes that’s the legacy she leaves as she soon graduates from Spelman College and welcomes The 41st Miss. Spelman and Her Court, along with her Spel-babies. “I don’t care if you all remember that I spoke at this event or that I hosted this basketball game. How did I make you feel?” She continues, “As 41st Miss Spelman and Her Court is announced, I will still be Indi, and I hope to be remembered that way.”

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